IT IS RARE that a party leader of just twelve months standing is faced with making a speech that is considered to be make-or-break for his future prospects. But that is exactly the position facing Ed Miliband as he delivers his Labour conference speech in Liverpool today.
A strong summer performance on phone hacking cannot mask a string of polls where he consistently trails David Cameron by 10 to 20 per cent in respect of perceived leadership capabilities. That the Labour Party is marginally ahead in most polls of voting intentions suggests its slender lead exists despite Miliband, not because of him.
The root of Miliband’s difficulties is of course the £156bn UK government borrowing in 2009/10. Even if the public were in the mood to forgive and forget such a large deficit (which they are not), Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have struggled to articulate how they would tackle the current financial crisis if they were in power. So while borrowing remains extremely high this year, a double dip recession is a strong possibility, and public spending cuts remain deeply unpopular, Miliband has been unable to capitalise on the coalition’s woes.
Miliband’s other major problem is, Miliband. So far as they are aware of him, significant numbers of respondents to opinion polls just do not warm to him and cannot envisage him in 10 Downing Street. Words like “nerdy” and “geeky” tend to emerge quite quickly. To many, he simply does not have the communication skills of David Cameron, the kind you need to be a Prime Minister.
So today in Liverpool Miliband will seek to build his reputation as competent, likeable and trustworthy. His pitch is to middle England – particularly voters in the south and the Midlands who have deserted Labour in droves. He understands that economic insecurity is a major concern for the British people, hence his repeated references to the “squeezed middle”.
A senior Labour figure said at the weekend “we don’t need to shout louder, but explain more. Explain what we got right and wrong before the crash, explain how we would get the economy growing and so deal with the deficit, and explain how we will deal with social justice with less money around”. No doubt this is true, but it is highly unlikely that Miliband will be able to tick all those boxes in one go. His speech today will not set out the manifesto that Labour intends to fight the next election upon, although there may be some eye-catching policies on energy and higher education. Overall, his task is to try to convince a sceptical public that he shares their worries and has credible ideas to do something about them.
If Miliband can do this, perhaps he can move to the foothills of the mountain he has to climb between now and May 2015. But he will have to make quick and steady progress if he is to prevent a pearl-handled revolver being passed his way.
Phillip Snape is the managing director of PSA Communications.
This article first appeared in City Am 25.09.11